The Psychology of Religious Experience

October 3, 2018

Dr. Mark Ryan is new to The Women’s Institute this semester. In his upcoming class, “Spiritual Insight: A Psychology of Religious Experience.” Dr. Ryan will be answering the question “Is there a place for spirit in the human psyche?” We caught up with him to find out more.


WIH Reporter: As a professor of American Studies and History at Yale University for more than twenty years, what redirected your interests to studying the ideas of human consciousness and insight?

Ryan: There may be more continuity to that trajectory than meets the eye. My primary academic field has been American intellectual history—the history of ideas. Studies of religion have been part of that, going back to, say, the theology of the early New England Puritans. I’ve long had an interest in the American Transcendentalists—figures such as Emerson, especially—who might be considered forerunners of the view of human consciousness that is the focus of my current writing. For me personally, the most inspirational figure that I encountered in my academic studies was the psychologist and philosopher William James. I wrote a Master’s thesis on James back in the late 1960’s; different aspects of his work have drawn me at different points in my career. I now see him as laying the foundations of what, in my recent book, I refer to as “transpersonal thought,” a branch of psychology that honors spiritual experience. Apart from my academic studies, I’ve long pursued what we might refer to as personal growth or an expansion of consciousness—a passion, I suppose, that forever brands me as a child of the ‘60s.

WIH Reporter: In your book, “A Different Dimension: Reflections on the History of Transpersonal Thought“, you point out that 18 – 33% of American adults identify as “spiritual but not religious.” What will you be delving into in your course that would perhaps explain this?

Ryan: An opening to spiritual experience, I would argue, is a perennial aspect of human life. Historically, we’ve relegated the articulation and regulation of that experience to traditional religions. But many in today’s world have had personal experiences with religious establishments that make them wary. They see the inevitable weaknesses in those very human organizations—the limitations of their popular theologies, the struggles of their power relationships, their internal and external conflicts, even their hypocrisies. As different cultures mix in our ever more globalized world, the claims to absolute truth of different religions are more and more called into question. The social trend now known as “spiritual but not religious” is criticized, often legitimately, as shallow, mindlessly eclectic, and lacking philosophical depth. But a purpose of my book is to demonstrate to a lay audience that this trend, which embraces spiritual experience but rejects the dogmas and hierarchies of organized religions, is subject to a robust and profound defense, with a significant literature behind it. Transpersonal thought, as I’m portraying it, can provide intellectual support to a spiritual but not religious stance.

WIH Reporter: Talk about this view of psychology that makes room for the spiritual experience. What does this mean? Is this something outside our five senses?

Ryan: The short answer to your last question is, yes. The dominant view in Western intellectual life is materialism—the notion that matter, usually conceived of as solid substance, is at the basis of all existence. A corollary is that all consciousness is produced by the human brain, through chemical and electromagnetic processes, out of impulses that travel to the brain through neural pathways initiated with our five senses. There are other corollaries as well, of course—that materially based explanations of any phenomenon have primacy over other forms of explanation; and that when the brain disintegrates there can be no ongoing persistence of life, no survival of a spirit.

In this course, we’ll be looking at thinkers, primarily psychologists, who resisted this materialistic consensus. They were interested in psychological phenomena that could not be explained, or at least not easily explained, in materialistic terms—phenomena such as telepathy, out-of-body experiences, clairvoyance, past life regressions, near death experiences, mystical visions. They wanted to investigate these experiences as empirically and scientifically as possible, eliminating consideration of those that could not be corroborated. For well over a century now, beginning in the later 19th century, they have built up a massive trove of evidence that remains ignored by more established thinkers. Throughout the course we’ll be asking how such phenomena can be explained—and, more broadly, what the explanations might imply about both human consciousness and the reality in which we live. William James put it this way: “The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world.” That other dimension—which by James’s reckoning is part of ourselves—we call “mystical,” or “supernatural” or “spiritual.”

WIH Reporter: What will the format of your class be?

Ryan: Assuming that we have a relatively small group, I’d like the class be a discussion seminar, with lively participation by all. I will certainly do some lecturing, but my deeper interest is in the experience and perspectives of the students as we all encounter the class’s central ideas. The course will be structured around my recent book, with expectations of short readings—a chapter of no more than 20 pages—each week. Ideally, I would hope that our discussions would help to draw out of the students discoveries that they might make about themselves and/or their own thinking. That, you know, is the etymological meaning of “education,” which is from the Latin educare, “to draw out.” To be frank, I always viewed myself more as an educator than a scholar. That preference drove me into my work as a dean of students, interested in the impact on the students of their individual encounters with the liberal education that each would make his or her own. I’m eagerly looking forward to in-depth discussions with the people of The Women’s Institute, with all their varied experiences and points of view.

WIH Reporter: You refer to transpersonal experiences, how do these help us answer some of the fundamental questions of our lives?

Ryan: By “transpersonal experiences,” I mean the kind of experiences I’ve just referred to. We have the freedom, of course, to ignore the questions that they raise, focusing on “the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world,” gaining a living, advancing in a profession, pursuing pleasures, warding off pain, perhaps striving to better the welfare of those around us. Those are all worthy pursuits, to be sure. But for a certain kind of temperament—call it a “spiritual” temperament—they are not sufficient for a satisfactory life. People of a spiritual temperament want a greater sense of meaning in their lives. If we find hints—felt intuitively, perhaps demonstrated experientially—that there is indeed an “altogether other dimension of existence,” we find that sense of meaning by putting ourselves, in some way, in relationship to it. We search for ways to put ourselves in contact with it, or better, in harmony with it. Transpersonal experiences may not answer the fundamental questions of our lives, but they help, in the first place, to raise those questions. They prompt us to delve more deeply into our own subjective experience, and thereby to pursue a richer and more meaningful life.

WIH Reporter: What do you expect your students to take away from this course?

Ryan: Despite the materialistic outlook dominant in our intellectual world, I’d like them to come away with a sense that life is bigger than we know, and that there is a strong philosophical and psychological defense for a more spiritual orientation in their lives. Secondly, I’d like them to be reinforced in their own spiritual orientation, perhaps with a little more self-awareness of how it is tailored to their deeper individual needs and proclivities. Put another way, I’d like them to be one small step closer to realizing their true selves. And finally, I’d hope they would leave with a sense of respect for the outlooks of their classmates, and for how those outlooks respond to those classmates’ own unique experience.

Mark Ryan’s 8-week class starts on October 18th, from 10:00 am – 12:00 pm. For more information or to register, click here.